At one of the online writing haunts I visit (my “bar” of choice),  someone on a thread started a really, really fun discussion.  We were to imagine that we woke up one morning and, standing at our bedside, were three of our all time favorite characters—characters that came either from our books (egotistical writers that we are!) or from others.  We were then supposed to discuss what our day would be like,  as we spent it with these three completely imaginary characters.

Oh.  My.  Heavens.

It took me, like, twenty minutes to stop laughing at the computer screen,  just so giddy I was about how much fun I knew this was going to be.  Characters from the last twenty three years started flashing through my brain saying, “Pick me!  Pick me!  Pick me!”   You don’t get it.  I know you don’t get it, but I promise you, I was —giddy–,  this was so much fun!  And it hadn’t even –started– yet.   First, I had to decide who my favorite characters were.  This requires some serious contemplating.  Right off the bat, I knew Landon Montgomery would be there, so I needed only two more.  Fully and whole-heartedly relishing this, I had to go back.  Waaaaaaayyy back.  Who would it be?   Might it be Sully Chassion, from “Triumph” the lone orphan-grown-up-to-be-cowboy who got his heart broken then reluctantly agreed to help the source of his heartbreak?  Or, wait, what about Amanda, the female counterpart in “Dreams of the Heart”, who was, for years, my only female character I kind of liked?  Take your pick of the Clayton’s, either mine from “Me” who stole my heart when he climbed into the deathbed of his beloved, or Judith McNaught’s from “Whitney, My Love” who captivated me with his remorseful, albeit drunk, confession to his brother of all his grievances against Whitney?   Ash, with his spontaneous love of clouds and ice cream and kites—I can’t forget him…. what a day that would be, playing and talking with characters when one of them was imaginary even in the book!   What about Tony from “Mountains of Hope”, the Stackhouse-like character that charmed, then comforted, the young heroine?  What about Alexi herself, the girl who risked her life to save American men from Hitler—she’d be a strong contender for sure.  Oh, heavens, let’s not stop there,  there’s always Austin who loved traveling and playing the music from “Chasing the American Dream,” or what about a not so heroic character,  like Charles from “Cherokee Highway”, who suffered tragedy in order to redeem himself in future stories?   Aria from “Faith”, the book I decided I didn’t want published but that contained  one of my strongest female characters of all times?  What if it was a secondary character?  What if Pete from “Me” showed up?  Some of the conversations I could undoubtedly have with the wonderful father would probably seep healing into my real life.  Luke from “The Journal”, who never forgot his childhood best friend and love?  Or Laura, from “Strength of a Woman”, who was eaten up with guilt from losing a baby—she was one of my favorites too.  What would I do if Mickey showed up,  one of the primary characters in the group I created when I was about nine?  There is currently a list of 125 books I’ve written, all with whole casts of characters that I haven’t visited in forever.  How in the world can I choose favorites?

What about characters in books I’ve read?

Clayton Westmoreland, of course, as already mentioned, but what about Edward, from “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane?”  He’s a rabbit.  A china rabbit who is also quite arrogant. But there’s just that something about him.  Or what about Francie Nolan from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”  She’d be interesting to talk to.  So would Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I loved that book because of her, and I’ve never forgotten how they’d find stuff in the tree every day.  Classic.  What if she were real?  Just for a day?  What if she met one of my characters, like Anna from “The Character”?   Oh, that would be worth paying for, to see how she would impact my sweet Anna.  Or, if you want more mainstreamed, what about Whip, from Elizabeth Lowell’s wonderful book, “Only Love?”  Come on, admit it, a hero named Whip makes the heart beat a little faster,  yes?  What if he met Landon—see me cover my face with both hands and squeal with delight.  Liesel from “The Book Thief” steals books, even when she cannot yet read them, and she helps a Jew.  She’s also from one of the best books I’ve ever read.  What about the narrator of that book—Death—wow, there’s a thought.  What if I woke up and Death was standing there, and I could visit with Death for a whole day? Oh boy, I think I’ll pass on him. Elizabeth, from Judith McNaught’s lovely book  “Almost Heaven”, could really be helpful to most of my female characters—she’d be great at helping them see how beautiful they are.  Plus, she’s from the 1700s or something like that, so she’d talk all day with a cool English accent and she’d be clueless about modern things we take for granted—like girls who wear pants every day!  She would be delightful.

::happy sigh::

Okay.  Now that that trip down fun memory lane has been accomplished, let me go about choosing.

1)  Landon Montgomery.  He is my all-time favorite male character.  He still appears to me in his signature cowboy hat and confident walk.  He had a rough childhood (surprised, anybody?) but grew into the strong, silent type that gets things accomplished. He created a ranch for abused and special needs kids, and he helps them.  And I’ve always loved him, that awesome piece of work from my imagination.  I really owe it to him to get “Dreams of the Heart” typed up so all the world can know how awesome he is.  So cool is he that he actually became a secondary character in a more recent book, “Faith.”  I ended up choosing not to publish “Faith” for personal reasons, but it was so much fun getting to revisit Mr. Montgomery.  He’s definitely in the top three.

2)  Aria, from “Faith.”   A strong willed teenager who was orphaned by a violent act from her father, then abused as a child, she becomes a very strong willed person determined to live independently.  She runs away and goes to live with her paternal grandparents, whom she has never known, and there meets a homeless man who isn’t really a homeless man at all, who transforms a few of Jesus’ parables into real life experiences that change Aria.   Her strong act is really a facade most of the time, and I’d have to remain on my toes,  but she’d be interesting to watch all day nonetheless.

3) Ash.  I can’t leave him out–such a source of comfort and, besides, he’d be good at lightening things up.

That was totally unfair, making me choose only three characters.  I really wanted to choose Whip, from Elizabeth Lowell’s book, “Only Love”, because his reaction to seeing a big dog would be priceless.  AND Aria’s reaction to WHIP would be totally worth the day.  But the chance to have Landon, Aria and Ash in the same room with me is too good to pass.  Like I said, I’m a writer.

Anyway, now that I got the final three,  here’s how I imagine that beautiful day might go…

_________

I’m being watched.

I know I’m being watched.

Slowly, my eyelids flutter open.

The first thing I see is a girl.  She’s got red hair pulled back into a ponytail.  She lifts a hand and moves it in an arc to the left—kind of a wave.  I blink.  I know her but…. I can’t quite guess who she might be.  And how she would have gotten into my room.  Then I realize that, beside her, stands two men.  One is really, really tall…. kind of like a mountain, and he has thick dark hair, almost black, but not quite, and a pair of piercing warm eyes.  My heart lurches into my throat.  I know that face.  The other man is tall, too, but he’s more muscular than the first.  He wears a black cowboy hat and sports a dark tan which is undoubtedly from working outside so much.  His hands are huge.  I blink, then shake my head as if to clear it.  I know these people.  But… but… it cannot be.  It’s impossible.

The girl snorts.  “No, it’s not.”

I frown.

“It’s not impossible.”

She read my mind.  The girl just read my mind.  Swallowing hard, I move so that I’m sitting up in the bed.  “Aria?”

A big grin stretches across her face.  Her green eyes shine as she nods happily.  “Hey-lo.”

I cautiously turn my head to the muscular cowboy.  “You’re Landon.”

“Hm mm.  Why ain’t my book typed up?”

Aria laughs.  I scowl.  “Sorry about that.  It will be, I promise.  One day.”

I have to face him.  I know that.  But I’m suddenly really nervous, and I try to still the pounding of my heart. Eventually, I turn my head to see the other man, the one whose presence is massive.  He smiles, his mouth stretching slowly into the formation of a perfect closed smile.  I stare at him.  I find I don’t want to look away.  As much as I’ve loved Landon Montgomery who, incredibly, is standing mere feet away from me,  this is the one I’m captivated by.  Comfort oozes out of him, gentleness and compassion;  understanding and unburdened acceptance.  Comfort, though,  is the stand-out emotion that melts me.  In all his many forms, I’ve known him all my life. And now, he’s here, standing in visible form in front of me.  Before I speak a word, tears blur my vision.  He reacts, leaning forward.  His hug is familiar,  but novel, too, since it’s finally in the flesh.  Warmth seeps through him and into me until I’m not chilled at all.  When he finally leans away, my eyes dart to the other two.  Landon is smiling softly,  Aria looks bored.  I look back and smile finally.

“Hi Ash.”

“Hi Tiffini.”  Even his voice is warm.

“So, kind of like Cinderella’s clock, we’re all going to disappear exactly twelve hours from now,” Landon drawls, reluctance clinging to his deep voice.

“Yeah.  So, like, get up already,”  Aria demands, reaching down and yanking the covers off me. What a day this is going to be.

****

Aria’s very impatient, she really wants to get moving.  When I suggest breakfast, she practically shouts  “No breakfast. ”  Landon, on the other hand, speaks up with the quiet authority that has been his trademark for ten years or more.  “We’re not doing anything without breakfast.  If you try to work without eating, you won’t do so good.  I’ll cook eggs and bacon, sausage, ham and Amanda’s special biscuits.”   Me and the other two stare at him in quiet amazement.  Finally, Ash lifts a shoulder.  “I’ll take an apple.”  Finally, I feel compelled to admit,  “All I’ve got is Frosted Flake cereal.”

“Done.”  Miraculously (or maybe not, since they are my characters), everyone agrees.   As we eat, I can’t stop staring, still not quite believing they’re real.  What if no one but me can actually see the three people eating the three very real bowls of cereal at the table?

“We are real.”  Landon insists without looking up.

He read my mind.  That’s a freaky feeling, having people read your mind.

“So other people can see you all?”  I insist.

“For the next twelve hours, yes.”  Ash confirmed.

I try to process this.

“So what should we do?  Where should we go?”   Aria asks.

All four of us look up from our cereal and stare at one another.

There’s only one place.

*****

Deciding which one was tough. Centennial was the largest.  But Harvey, or the Greenway, they both had creeks.  Long Hunter had long been a favorite.  In the end, I opted for Harvey because it was situated in the middle of a small town.  My shock began to wear off in the car and excitement replaced it.  I was in the car with three of my favorite characters.  Three characters whose stories I cherished, and whose names were forever engraved on a piece of my heart.  Writing them had helped save me;  in more ways than I could count, they had been my lifeline.  And now, not only were they with me, but they were also getting to meet each other.  It was such a wonderful and beautiful thing I couldn’t even begin to have ever dreamed it.

“Hey, is there a toy store anywhere nearby?”  Ash asks.

“A toy store?   Why?  How old are you anyway?”  Aria demands teasingly.  Ash ignores her, undoubtedly grateful he wasn’t the saving grace in her story.

“Sure,”  I say.  Moments later, we pull into the parking lot of a Toys R Us.   The moment we walk inside,  and are surrounded by thousands of brightly colored toys and gadgets and the poster of Jeffery, something in my heart melts.  Of course it would be Ash to suggest a trip to the local toy store.

I look at him.  He winks at me, leans over and takes my hand.  “Come on, I want to explore.”

“Explore?  A toy store? Are you nuts?”  Aria asks.

Landon uses an open palm to push her head forward.  “Back off,”  he warns.

Together, we cruise down the aisles.  Past the Legos and Kinex, past the electronic corner, past the movies.  We pass the infant aisle, pass the Crayola aisle, although Aria stays a moment too long there, a bit wistfully, I imagine.  We get to the baby doll aisle, but only glance at the dolls and accessories, before moving on.  In the middle aisle, there’s a tricycle.  Before we know what’s happening to him, Ash jumps on it and starts trying to pedal it.  Aria goes up to him and pushes him real hard.   The tricycle wobbles and threatens to overturn its massive rider, which leaves us all in laughter.

“Heads up!”   Landon cries.

I turn, just in time to narrowly avoid being hit over the head with a big bouncy, pink and purple striped ball.  From over my head, an arm shouts out and slaps the ball hard back toward Landon.   Ash saved me.  Naturally.

“I’m ready now.”  I declare.  Landon’s eyebrows arch, and I realize for the first time today how handsome the man is.  His cowboy hat hides rich, nutmeg brown hair and his oval shaped eyes are honey brown.  Beautiful.  Too bad his married to Amanda, one of my favorite female characters.

He laughs, probably at the thought I just had, and I fall in love with the rich sound. We bandy the ball back and forth for a few minutes before I hear Ash:   “Aria, I will kill you.”

“You can’t, I’m imaginary,” followed by a loud, girlish laugh.

“Uh-oh,” Landon says.  He grabs the ball and tucks it under his arm, smiling at me.  “We’ll be buying this,”  he announces before we head down an aisle to see what Aria and Ash are up to.   When we get there,  they both stand armed with a can of silly putty.  Aria is in attack mode, her legs spread slightly apart, her can of silly string aimed at Ash’s face.  Ash stands in an upright position, his own can pointed at Aria.  “You won’t do it.”  Aria declares bodly.

“Uh, Aria, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.  He made Anna ask for three taste tests in an ice cream shop.”  I remember.

“Yeah, but this will get us kicked out.”

“Sometimes the point is having fun.”  Ash says, a line he’s used before.

The stand-off continues until, from nowhere, silly string attacks them both, first Aria, then Ash.  The two turn to stare at their attacker.  Me!

“YOU!”  Aria screeches, before all voices are lost in the silly string fight.   Landon crosses his arms and leans non-chalantly against the shelf, even crossing his ankles.  I grab another can of silly string and toss it at him.  “It’s two against one here, you know.”

“I think you’re holding your own, there, Ms. Johnson.”

My can of silly string runs off first.  I am covered in the stuff and my sides are killing me, from the laughter.  But I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.  Aria’s can runs out next, and Ash throws his arm in the air, looking very much like a young boy, and shouts triumphantly:  “Champion, yes!”

Everyone laughs, even Aria.

“Come along, children, police are headed this way, and I don’t want to bail anybody out today.”   Landon declares, walking toward the exit.

“Oh, great, we’ll just run from them. That always works for me,” Aria joked.  Since they weren’t part of her story, the men don’t get it, but Aria and I laugh out loud at the inside joke.

****

It’s only natural that the characters and I wind up at the park.  I  realize this when we reach Harvey Park,  how the serenity of a park has a played a part in most every one of my books.  With Ash and Anna, it was at a park that they chased clouds and flew a kite;   Aria’s friend Joey created a mini park with his field of flowers and Landon’s refuge was the sanctuary of a small park.  It’s Fall, so the leaves on the trees are brightly colored and there’s a brisk breeze blowing through the air.  As we arrive, I explain that my girls and I found this park and how it’s cool because the play equipment is unlike most other parks’.  I mention how its creek is home to our private “Secret Garden.”    Landon convinces us to wade in the water,  and I convince the group to stay in, despite the icy temperatures.  Though he refrained from the silly string fight, Landon’s playfulness comes out in the water;  he splashes first.  We all end up soaked and freezing.  I don’t care. Aria steals Landon’s hat; he threatens to drown her if she doesn’t return it.  Caught up,  I am in awe of these people, these characters have always felt so real to me;  caught up in the joy that exists simply because they do.  It is right that we are laughing and playing because, no matter how serious their stories,  joy has always been mine to claim simply by recording their voices.

Finally,  we wade out of the creek and trek along the trail.  The path is narrow and tree branches scrape us.  I am in flip flops, naturally, and Landon’s angry at me for it.  Ash is concerned.  Aria wonders what else they expected of me.  Ash wants to know if we want to hear a story;  we all oblige and listen to one of his beautiful tales—one about a nightingale and how she lost her song, and how her friends searched high and low for it, but, in the end, only the nightingale herself could locate her lost song.  It is a typical Ash story, and I love him for it.  Aria is enchanted.  “Wow.  Did you tell stories like that in your book?”

Ash lifted a shoulder, smiling.  “No.  My young friend named Anna did.”

“He was Anna’s inspiration.”  I said.

“Huh?”  Aria was confused.

“Ash was imaginary.  He was in Anna’s imagination.”

“Ah…. whoa, that’s weird.  You were imaginary in your story but you’re real now?  That’s messed up, Tiffini.”

Ash laughs,  Landon smiles.  So do I.

“I’m glad he’s real now.”  I say softly.  Ash’s laughter turns to a gentle smile.

We all grow quiet and listen.  We hear the rustling of the leaves behind us, we don’t know what its too.  There’s a clearing up ahead, we stop and sit.  We talk of their stories—they each tell us about the people that are important to them. Aria is sorely disappointed to realize Landon is happily married.  Landon wants to hear more about Anna.  Ash tells him her story, assures him she’s happy now.  We stay at the park until our hands turn red from the cold.  Secretly, I am glad to see their hands turn red—it is another incredible fact that makes them real.  Even if only for a little while.

Once we leave the park,  it’s nearly lunchtime.  We decide to skip it.  Landon admits he’s always wanted to see downtown, so I take them there.  We walk along the busy streets of Broadway,  I point out the Batman building.  Ash wants to hear music–we visit the Bluebird Cafe, and I explain its significance.  Aria wants to dance,  and starts doing so right on the streets.   We pass one of the horse drawn carriages.  I insist.  So we climb aboard and listen to the hooves pound against the concrete.  Blankets are draped around us, but I am warm from the inside out, as I look at these precious characters.

“I love y’all.”  I say spontaneously.

“We know.”  Aria assures me.  But I look at Landon and shake my head.  “You’re one of my favorite people of all time.  You’re one of the only people I’ve consistently thought about years after the book was finished.”

Landon smiles.

“He is rather hard to forget,”  Aria admits.

I look at her.  “And you’re my strongest girl character, hands down, ever.”

She smiled. “I like that.”

Then I look at Ash.  He winks.

“And you…”  I start. “I just love you.”

Ash smiles.  “I love you, too,  T.  We all do.”

I’d explain what they mean to me, and why I love them all so dearly, but they’re my characters—they already know all my fears, and all my secrets, and all my pain and all my stories.  I don’t have to explain to them that, without their stories, I don’t know how I would have survived in one piece.  I don’t have to explain that they were my friends, when I didn’t have any. They already know that.  I don’t have to tell Ash that, long before he had a book, he represented all of my characters.  Sometimes words are superfluous;  and now was one of those times.  All that mattered, they already knew.  The most important thing was enjoying them, and flourishing in the warmth of the camaraderie and familiarity that has always been with us.  We are old friends.  Still…their visit is meaningful to me, touches me on levels so deep I can’t even process it right now, and tears fill my eyes, tears that my words are incompetent, that I can’t adequately tell them how much I love them, and what they mean to me.

A movement from Landon draws my attention.  He reaches into his red and white plaid shirt’s pocket and removes a folded piece of paper.  He holds it out towards me.  Gingerly, I take it.

“What’s this?” I ask suspiciously.

“A letter I wrote you.”

I open the letter and read it.  Tears blur my vision as  I do.  The letter talks about Jessica, the special child he helped heal, and came to love. The letter talks about how special it made her feel to have an adult treat her warmly, how warm hugs and gentle smiles touched her and helped her mature into the young woman she is now.  It mentions how hard it sometimes was;  how much time it took.  He writes about how sometimes he wondered if what he did mattered at all,  how tired he sometimes got,  how stalled progress seemed. But he never gave up.  He couldn’t give up, he wrote, because the welfare of Jessica mattered to him.  He couldn’t give up because one life was important, and even if all he impacted was one life,  then it was all worth it.  At the end, the letter said:

I think you like me because I’m not all that different from you.  I worked hard in a fictional book.  I cared deeply about a fictional child. But the children you love and work for are real.  Do not ever again call me a hero without calling yourself one first.

Tears fill my eyes as I close the letter and smooth my hand over it.  It’s a piece of paper.  I reach over and wrap my arms around Landon’s neck.  His hand smooths my back. I can feel him smile, even though  I can’t see his face. He is truly strong–I feel it in his muscled back and shoulders and in the strength of his arms that are wrapped around me.  I feel safe.  Truly safe.  And I wish that  I could convey that to him.  Instead,  I pull away and smile.  “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve not gone anywhere.”

….

Before I know it,  it is dark again.  We are back at my house.  It is almost time.  Cinderella’s clock is about at midnight.  They don’t know, or won’t tell me, how they are going to disappear.  Though I don’t want them to, I know it’s alright.  They’re a part of me, and always will be.  To visit with them, all I have to do is read their stories.

 

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